Jazz Piano I

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Technique[edit | edit source]

One of the first things a jazz pianist needs is a foundation of good pianistic technique, which is most easily gained by studying classical piano. Learning pieces by composers known for using counterpoint, especially J.S. Bach, can be especially helpful in developing an ear for contrapuntal melodies and hand independence (the ability of both hands to do different things at the same time), which are both critical to the jazz pianist. Several of the technical resources used in jazz piano are classical devices which you can find in the baroque era.

In order to successfully improvise, a correct articulation is necessary. Although this can only be achieved through practice—classical training may help—, the best advice is to "feel" the music you are playing. Technical aspects involved in rhythm, for instance, are likely to be better understood if they are felt and thought rather than just read from sheet music. In jazz, as a rule of thumb, most passages are played with eighth notes, in a more or less "swinging" feel. But to learn rhythm patterns, it is usually better to do it by listening.

A further jazz piano technique is to consider each note as a number or 'degree' of the major scale to which the chord is related. By doing this, you will no longer have difficulty playing in unfamiliary keys because you will be thinking 'numbers' rather than 'note letters'. For example, if your improvised melody goes, against a Cm7 chord (C,Eb, G, Bb): G, G, Eb, A, D, D, Bb, F... you can consider these as note values against the C root, giving: 5, 5, m3, 6, 9, 9, d7, 4. Remembering this sequence means that you can simply transpose this idea into any other key, let's say F: C, C, Ab, D, G, G, Eb, Bb.

In addition to this note value concept, each note value itself has a particular 'feeling'. A 9th sounds 'longing', a 6th sounds 'soft' and easy on the ear. Knowing the note values' feelings enables you to play Purposeful improvisations in any key.

Jazz piano technique should not deter the aspiring jazz pianist. Understandably, listening to recordings of Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans is enough to make anyone give up jazz piano, but it need not be that way. Their technique came to them in the same way it should come to you: practising and listening and emulating and creating anew. At the end of the day, with a steady accumulation in your knowledge and ability to play in all 12 keys: major scales, minor scales, blues scales, major/minor chords and these with dominant and major 7ths, is all you need to really get going in jazz. The rest will come from within.

Listening[edit | edit source]

By collecting a library of good jazz recordings and listening regularly, you'll be able to determine which pianists you might like to emulate, familiarize yourself with the myriad sounds that constitute "jazz", and develop an ear for the common forms jazz tunes tend to follow (AABA, for instance). This will also give you an idea of which tunes you would like to learn first. There are numerous great pianists that you will discover in time, but the first seven on your list should be Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Red Garland and McCoy Tyner. Each of these seven pianists made a significant contribution through his style, and all of these pianists' styles were highly original. There are in many cases pianists who occupied similar niches, and these are marked under "further listening."

Art Tatum is first because he was most influential during the 1930s and 1940s and (somewhat) preceded the bebop era. His recordings and transcriptions are admired by modern pianists for his advanced concept of the jazz popular of his day, as his playing possessed incredible technique and speed.

Thelonious Monk is today admired most for his style's influence on other musicians and his compositions. His compositions were critical to the founding of bebop and gave it advanced chromatic chord progressions. His ballad "Round Midnight" is one of many jazz standards he composed, and any jazz pianist should be familiar with a few dozen of the tunes he wrote. His quartet with saxophone player Charlie Rouse (1960s) was a significant development in its day. For further listening: Stanley Cowell, Geri Allen.

Bud Powell's playing showed influences from Thelonious Monk, one of bebop's founders, and Art Tatum. He took Monk's choppier style and gave it an Art Tatum influence resulting in more flow and stronger swing pulse. His Massey Hall concert with Parker and Gillespie, and later a number of trio recordings, gave him legendary status in bebop circles along with Monk. His technique was advanced and therefore few emulated his style, with a notable example being Barry Harris. Transcriptions are challenging to learn. Further listening: Barry Harris, brother Richie Powell.

Oscar Peterson developed a number of accessible licks that he could apply to any swing rhythm, from ballad to uptempo, and his piano trio (Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums) is considered to have been one of the greatest in jazz. As his playing was somewhat more accessible than that of his predecessors, listening to his extensive discography is an excellent start for learning pianists.

Bill Evans came to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was influenced by a number of other players, yet had his own more classical playing style. As the pianist on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue he was successful both as an accompanist and leader of his own trio, which he ran until his death in 1980. His playing consisted primarily of two styles: exploration on ballad and slow 3/4, and uptempo swing, and he applied different styles to each. He focused on clarity, particularly in his earlier years, before shifting toward electric piano in his later years. Further listening: Michel Petrucciani, Onaje Gumbs.

Red Garland, also a former member of the Miles Davis Quintet (before Evans) was one of many mainstream jazz pianists who were influenced by bebop but avoided the intensity of Bud Powell's playing style. Further listening: Al Haig, Tommy Flanagan, Duke Jordan.

McCoy Tyner was a member of John Coltrane's Quartet/Quintet and in his early years (1960s) was a proponent of the avant-garde approach. His voicings were more complicated than those of his predecessors in order to match the intensity of Coltrane. He largely succeeded Tommy Flanagan and the mainstream pianists in Coltrane's increasingly avant-garde music circle. For further listening: Alice Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Mulgrew Miller, Herbie Hancock, Cedar Walton.

The verb 'to listen' is very different to the verb 'to hear'; you must execute the former. To listen to jazz is to internalise jazz; to hear jazz is to ignore jazz. When listening, pay close attention to chord types, bass lines, how the melody makes you feel and how the swing, if it's a fast enough piece, really gets to you. Without an awareness of such things, jazz will be lost on you.

Listening may also involve sitting down and copying what you hear. Whilst it is not advised (by Oscar Peterson no less) to listen just to copy note-for-note an entire recording, doing so to copy and then study and then personalise your favourite licks (melodic phrases) from a jazz recording is more than encouraged because it opens up the piano in ways you never thought possible, as well as providing you with a heavier 'bag of licks' and more opportunities for your fingers to develop dexterity. You also learn about note/chord connections which were originally unknown to you.

Listen to jazz as much as much as possible. There can be no finer advice to the aspiring jazz pianist.

Learning Tunes[edit | edit source]

Before learning a lot of complex scales or chord voicings, it is essential to learn some of the more common tunes jazz players play. Here are some examples of tunes you'll want to learn:

  • Autumn Leaves
  • All the Things You Are
  • Beautiful Love
  • Body and Soul
  • But Beautiful
  • Cherokee
  • Darn That Dream
  • Fly Me to the Moon
  • Girl from Ipanema
  • I Hear a Rhapsody
  • My Funny Valentine
  • Round Midnight
  • There Will Never Be Another You

Resist the urge to read tunes out of the book and memorize them as soon as possible. It is better to buy a recording of the tune and learn from the recording. It is critical that you feel relaxed and free to use your ears to explore possibilities in a piece of music, something you'll never accomplish while reading from a page.

Start learning each tune simply; begin by memorizing the melody and also the lyrics, if there are any. One good way to learn a melody is to play the bass note of each chord symbol while singing the melody. Later, replace singing the melody with playing it in your right hand, but sing along softly or silently in your head. To ensure you really know the melody, try transposing it into two or three other randomly chosen keys.

Next, fill in the space between the bass notes and the melody with the inner chordal material indicated by the chord symbols from the book.

In addition, it is very important to be aware of chord sequences in jazz tunes. It's fair to say that over 75-80% of them contain incredibly similar chord sequences, albeit in a different key. The most common chord progression is II-V-I. This is commonly extended by being VI-II-V-I and this itself can oftimes be extended by being III-VI-II-V-I.

The use of Roman Numerals is very commonplace in jazz so familiarise yourself with RN 1-7 immediately. 7, because that is the highest major scale degree. The RN values in the progressions above (and any other jazz progression) are numbered from the root, I (one). In the key of C, the longest progression would be: E, A, D, G, C, with C being the I and E being the III, from the major scale of the root, C.

This does become a little more complex because the first question is, "What type of chord do I play for each scale degree?" Simply remember this before going to study in detail about 'Modal Theory': I: Major 7, II: m7, III: m7, 4: Major 7, 5: dominant 7, 6: m7, 7: half-diminshed (root, minor, flat 5, dominant 7th, not 6th which is a full diminished or put another way, a full set of minor 3rds).

Once you are familiar with modal theory and have practised and mastered the II-VI-II-V-I chord progressions in every key (give yourself a month, max), you will be ready to rapidly internalise the vast majority of jazz tunes.

Scales and Approaches[edit | edit source]

Blues Scale[edit | edit source]

There is no one scale which can be called the "jazz scale". Jazz music uses many scales, which belong to the various groups of modes.

Blues scale, ascending (C minor): C Eb F F# G Bb C

The scale is a representation of what notes can be used across a dominant (seventh) or minor chord of the respective key, and the scale is not to be played ascending and descending as with classical scales. While jazz pianists may or may not play scales in practice (most do), application of these scales is crucial to an improvising jazz pianist. It's called a minor C blues scale when playing a blues in C (major).

The same scale can be used as the equivalent major scale, in this case Eb. Play the Eb chord with your left hand and play (or try improvising in) the above C minor scale. The bass note is now of course the second one - Eb. You will see that this major-6 scale is a very good jazz scale and probably more useful than the C minor in most jazz tunes.

The same scale in C (major) would look like this: C D (Eb) E G A C

Adding an Ab to the C6 scale gives you another blue note between the 5-6 (G-A).

These scales in theoretical terminology are known as the pentatonic scales. Many improvisations made by some pianists give this pentatonic feeling as the key to improvisation. Something else to consider is that parts of chromatic scales are often used when improvising as well. A common chromatic approach used in Thelonious Monk's "Blue Note" is ascending four notes chromatically, such as C - C# - D - Eb, across the dominant chord. It can be done in reverse (Tadd Dameron's "Hot House") or used as part of a longer phrase. Advanced jazz pianists use a combination of the vast number of available scales and techniques, switching from one approach to another within phrases and choruses of improvisation.

Using Appoggiaturas and Other Melodic Phrases[edit | edit source]

In music, an appoggiatura is a note that is played quickly and chromatically, for example in the C major scale a pianist could play C, D, D# E, where D# becomes the appoggiatura and is played right before E. In most blues piano improvisations there is a famous melodic phrase, used before the fifth chord on a chord progression is played, called the Huey "Piano" Smith turnaround, named after the pianist who invented it in New Orleans.

Most of the music containing good improvisational phrases and piano soloing also comes from this city. This turnaround in a C Major scale would contain an appoggiatura, thus the following notes are played with right hand: C D# (E and G simultaneously) C (F and A as an interval); C, D# (E and G simultaneously once more) A (crossing index over thumb, which falls naturally into G and then G is played).

More concisely, the turnaround repeats the first interval with the appoggiatura and notes F and A are played with fingers 4 and 5 respectively. Another interesting phrase used in piano for jazz or blues which uses the black keys to form a quick blues (pentatonic) scale can be heard in the song "Big Chief" by Professor Longhair.